HC Deb 28 May 1872 vol 211 cc795-806

, on rising to move a Resolution condemnatory of the selection of the period of harvest for the contemplated Autumn Manœuvres, said, he should not have troubled the House with this question if he had not received a large number of letters from farmers expressing their great anxiety on the subject. They felt that very great hardship would be experienced by farmers and their labourers if the manœuvres were held in harvest time. The issue before the House rested solely on a question of time. He wished to guard himself with this declaration, because he thought any one who had taken any interest in the improvement of the organization of the Army must have come to the conclusion that the Government were entitled to great credit for having introduced the system of military manœuvres. Last year the Secretary of State for War stated that it was well known that in Prussia it had been the custom for a long time as soon as the harvest was over to make the different branches of the military service go through a series of manœuvres. Why should not the military manœuvres in this country be held not during the harvest, but, as in Prussia, as soon as the harvest was over? One of the officials of the War Department stated last year that in many parts of the country the crops would probably not be gathered in in September. The farmers were very desirous of giving every encouragement to the manœuvres; but was it not imprudent on the part of the Government to select a period when crops were still standing in the field for the carrying out of these manœuvres? The carrying out of these manœuvres in August would not only be a great inconvenience to farmers, but a great injustice to their labourers, because it would occasion the loss of their harvest wages. First, as regarded the farmer, the evil was this—that every year, and now much more than formerly, he had great difficulty in obtaining a supply of agricultural labour at the period of harvest. That might be attributed to many causes—partly to emigration, partly to the migration going on from rural to urban districts, and partly to the cessation of a large supply of Irish labour that used to be employed in the gathering in of the harvest in this country. As regarded the position of the labourer, it was still harder. During the period of harvest he earned the largest amount of wages. In the county of Hertford the average amount of wages earned by an agricultural labourer was no more than 11s. or 12s. per week; but in the harvest his wages were generally increased to 30s. per week. During the harvest he earned money wherewith he could discharge the little debts he had contracted during the year, and put himself in a better position to meet the hard time of winter. The alarming strikes which had occurred in agricultural districts had an important bearing on the present question. A strike was a great evil in agricultural and manufacturing parts of the country, both to employers and employed; but it was an evil especially in an agricultural district, as preventing the gathering in of the harvest in the most favourable part of the year, and thereby tending to produce famine. Contracts for the harvest month have been more freely entered into than in any previous year between the employers and the employed, and such contracts would be seriously interfered with if the Autumn Manœuvres commenced at so early a period as the 31st of August. There was another way in which both labourers and farmers might be very much injured. If you deprived the labourers of their money earnings in harvest they would have nothing to fall back upon in the winter months; they would be forced to become inmates of the poor-house, and the farmers would have to pay enormously in the way of rates. Then there was another point to be taken into consideration—namely, the ill effects which so mischievous a proceeding would have on the feelings of the labourers themselves. The other day a working man with whom he was discussing the question said—"I see clearly what is the meaning of this. You are anxious to choose a time of the year which you think will be rather for the benefit of the rich than of the poor." And of this he felt certain, that if by any means a belief, however unfounded, should spring up in the minds of the masses, that Parliament in selecting a period for these manœuvres were balancing the amusement of the rich against the hard earnings of the poor, it would give rise to a feeling of alienation between classes which would entail evils in the future far more serious than any that had ever befallen this country in the past, or in the guise of physical calamity or political disaster. The right hon. Gentleman had never shown himself unreasonable where any fair proposal was made from the Opposition benches, and he trusted, therefore, he would consent to postpone the manœuvres to the 25th of September. Nothing would be more deplorable than that the success of these manœuvres should be interfered with by embittering the feelings of em- ployers and employed in the agricultural districts. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving his Resolution.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That, in the opinion of this House, the selection of the period of harvest for the contemplated Autumn Manœuvres will interfere with the processes of agriculture, affect injuriously the interests of the cultivators of the soil, and inflict grave pecuniary hardship on the labourers in the rural districts."—(Mr. Dimsdale.)


said, that usually the harvest was not completed even in the Southern and Eastern parts of England by the 31st of August, and he never knew such a large quantity of backward spring corn as this year. They could not tell now what sort of weather they would have this summer; but there was every probability of a long, lingering, and somewhat late harvest. He hoped, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman, instead of taking the Militia from the farmers at the time when they would most be wanted, would, if there was any necessity for it, allow the soldiers to help in gathering in the harvest, as they would probably be needed. Let the right hon. Gentleman consider the pay given to a Militiaman. A great deal had been said lately about the poor remuneration given by farmers to the labourer. But the Militiaman, besides his bounty, had only 9d. a-day, 1 lb of bread, and three-quarters of a pound of tough bull beef. The result was, no sooner did the Militiaman undertake his duties if he had a wife and family at home, than they often became chargeable on the parish, and the Guardians were so kind-hearted that, considering the man was discharging a duty, they invariably allowed out-door relief. With the increased rate of wages which the labourer was receiving it was only fair that the Militiaman should get better pay, and so be enabled to repay the relief given to his family.


said, that the hon. Gentleman had brought forward his Motion in so friendly a tone that he presumed it was not intended to press it to a division, but that he had brought it forward as a mode of tendering advice in public that was more usually tendered in private, and which always received the most careful consideration of the Department. He could not agree to the terms of the Motion, and therefore he hoped the hon, Member would not give the House the trouble of dividing upon it. The hon. Gentleman might entirely relieve his mind from any notion that in making the proposed arrangements the authorities had considered one class of the community in preference to another. The military authorities could have no conceivable object except to choose the particular period which was most convenient to all classes of the public. The season of harvest was not the time really selected, but the period immediately after the harvest. ["No!"] If anybody thought that was not the case he should be happy to consider any suggestions supported by evidence to the contrary; but no such suggestions had reached him except in the form of this Motion. The history of the manœuvres of last year was extremely strong as an argument in favour of the proposal of the Government. He saw opposite his right hon. Friend (Sir John Pakington), who was present at the manœuvres last year, and who knew all the particulars. Last year's harvest was unusually late, and he had been very much pressed by some gentlemen to postpone the manœuvres until the 23rd of September, instead of allowing them to commence on the 9th, as he did. It was not without reluctance that he postponed them to so late a date as the 9th. What happened? They had the most beautiful weather, which contributed very much to making the manœuvres a great success. But on the 23rd of September a deluge of rain came on, which lasted for many days, and which had it fallen during the time of the manœuvres would have occasioned the greatest possible disappointment. What was the result agriculturally? The whole damage had been covered by a sum of £1,000. Was that any proof of injury to any agricultural interest? By the advice of the same eminent land surveyor by which he was guided last year he proposed to hold the manœuvres this year about one week earlier—that was to say, to begin on the 31st of August; and he had been assured there was no reason for apprehending that the damage to the farmers would be larger this year than it was last year, and in that point of view the agricultural interest of the district received no injury at all. He would not venture on the hazardous though ambitious office of weather prophet, or predict on the 28th of May what the weather would be in August or September. But in the region where they proposed to hold the manœuvres—namely, Salisbury Plain, the harvest last year, which had been exceptionally late, was over the first week in September. He had no object in view except to consult the general convenience. As to consulting the convenience of the rich rather than of the poor, the hon. Gentleman in making himself a tribune of the people to protect the interests of the poor would carry him along with him. What was really the state of the case? He supposed he was right in tracing the origin of this Motion to an invitation which had been given to the Hertfordshire Militia to join the manœuvres. The military authorities were desirous of making these manœuvres generally representative. He would have been glad that they could have gone to some parts of Ireland or Scotland for the scene of the manœuvres. He had made inquiries, and had found that the balance of advantages was in favour of the present proposal. The next point for consideration was how to make all parts of the country take an interest in the manœuvres. They had invited Militia and Volunteers from Scotland and Ireland, and among other counties they had thought Hertfordshire entitled to notice. Unfortunately for themselves they determined to pay Hertfordshire the compliment of inviting its Militia to join the manœuvres. The colonel of the regiment was very glad, but some agriculturists took the alarm. The moment the military authorities heard that, they released the Hertfordshire Militia from the engagement into which they had improvidently entered, thus forfeiting the advantage to be derived from their presence. All he could say was that the authorities had chosen the most convenient time, when the harvest would in all probability be over, and if the hon. Member were to consult the records of the weather for past years he would find that what had proved to be the most favourable season generally had been selected. If the time recommended by the hon. Gentleman had been chosen, he would find that the weather then had been usually most unfavourable.


willingly answered the appeal made to him by his right hon. Friend. So far as he could judge as a spectator, nothing could be more successful than the manœuvres of last year, and he heartily wished that the meeting of the present year might be attended with equal success. But his right hon. Friend had used rather an odd argument with regard to the weather. His right hon. Friend said that, as last year they did not meet till September 9, when the weather was charming and the manœuvres entirely successful, therefore they should not meet at the same time this year, but some time earlier. [Mr. CARDWELL: A week earlier.] Last year the manœuvres began on September 9—this year they were appointed for August 31. If this were only a week, he did not take quite the same view as his right hon. Friend of the number of days which made up a week. No doubt the Secretary of State, in making an arrangement of this sort, had to balance various considerations between which it was not easy to decide; but he was rather surprised to find that his right hon. Friend did not follow the precedent of last year. Judging from his own experience, there were few years when they would find the harvest over by the 31st of August. It was desirable to avoid, as far as possible, any unnecessary risk of creating unpleasant feelings by interfering with the harvest; and, looking to the usual course of weather and harvesting, a week or 10 days later than the 31st of August would avoid this unpleasantness, and would not incur greater danger from bad weather.


regretted that the right hon. Gentleman was not prepared to accede to the reasonable proposal made to him by the hon. Member (Mr. Dimsdale). Some years ago, when it was proposed to call out the Militia early in July, the agriculturalists represented to the authorities the great loss that would result therefrom, and the result was that the order was countermanded. He appealed to the right hon. Gentleman to adopt a similar course in this case, and meet in some way the views of the agricultural interest. The 12 months' labour of the farmer was about to be jeopardized. He should naturally sympathize with the military if encamped in bad weather; but sympathized more so with those whose whole year's labour depended upon the success of the harvest. The military had experienced no very great inconvenience from a few wet days at the end of August or beginning of September; but it would have a damaging effect on the farmer when shorthanded, for what farmer would like a sprouting barley crop with the malt duty unrepealed? The labourer would also be deprived of earning his accustomed increase of wages at harvest, and be thereby prevented from making his usual savings for the winter. He hoped it was not even now too late to make some modification in the existing arrangements.


said, the Militia were being called out in April and May, when the labourer was earning his 15s. or 18s. a-week in hoeing the land. They drew him away from this lucrative employment, paying him as a Militiaman only 13s. 4d. a-week, and so entailing upon him a loss of from 1s. 8d. to 4s. 8d. Besides this, the employer was often obliged to get his crops hoed at an increase of price, paying 7s. 6d. or even more per acre, instead of some 5s. The corn crop, too, was often damaged to the extent of a quarter per acre. There were 7,000,000 acres under cultivation; and assuming that half the number of Militiamen called out were withdrawn from hoeing the crops, and supposing each man during his five weeks' training would have hoed 12 acres, he reckoned that the loss to the country would be about £1,500,000. In the county of Essex a great loss would be occasioned if a number of men were withdrawn at a moment when it became necessary that the land should be hoed, and serious detriment would be done to the crops. He might also observe that a consequence of the men being withdrawn at such a time from their occupations was, that the Militia became unpopular with both the labourers and the employers, and that injury was thus done to the general interests of the country. He trusted, therefore, his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War would give the matter his serious consideration.


thanked the right hon. Gentleman for the attention which he had paid to the Question which he had addressed to him with respect to the training of the Hertfordshire Militia. It would be a serious loss to the farm labourer to be deprived of the £6 or £7 which he might earn during harvest time. He trusted that the right hon. Gentleman would listen to the appeals addressed to him, and would postpone the manœuvres for a few days.


, speaking for the Midland counties, said the period of harvest was considered of more importance than the time of wheat-growing, and inasmuch as harvest there was not over before the end of the first week in September he trusted the right hon. Gentleman, if he desired the attendance of the Militia of those counties at the Autumn Manœuvres—and they were quite willing to serve—would consider the representations which had now been made in favour of deferring the manœuvres to the time to which they were deferred last year with so much success.


said, he hoped his hon. Friend would divide the House unless an assurance were given on the part of the Government that the Autumn Manœuvres would not be held until after the harvest had been completed. The harvest was very rarely over till after the middle of September, and if the manœuvres came off before that time great harm would be done, if not by the troops themselves, by the camp followers. The right hon. Gentleman said that the one great object of the manœuvres was to bring the Volunteers and the Militia into conjunction with the Regular Army; but he might inform him that, owing to the time which had been fixed on this year, the Wiltshire Militia had declined to attend because they could not leave their occupations. The Yeomanry, too, would find it impossible to leave their farms while the harvest was going on. He might add that, although the amount of damage done last year was small, the county in which the manœuvres were held was very different from that in which they were to come off this year.


said, with regard to any inconvenience which might attend the calling out of the Militia at a particular time of the year, that the Inspector General took the precaution of making local inquiries on the subject before any period was decided upon by the Secretary of State for War. That was the invariable practice. As to the objection that Militiamen, when called out, lost money which they would have otherwise earned by agricultural labour, he might remark that the services of the Militia, like those of the regular soldiers, were perfectly voluntary, and the War Department experienced no difficulty in finding men on the present terms, nor was there any complaint made on the part of the men. With reference to the rate of labourers' wages, that would depend upon the general principle of supply and demand which always regulated it. At the same time, the Secretary of State for War had given instructions—and they had been carefully complied with—to the effect that every consideration should be paid to local interests. The difficulties which his hon. Friend (Mr. Wingfield Baker) had mentioned as affecting the agricultural interest in Essex did not appear to arise from the calling out of the Militia there. With regard to the observations of the hon. Member for North Warwickshire, the 2nd Staffordshire Militia, so far from being unable to attend, had requested permission to be at the manœuvres, only expressing regret that the invitation had not arrived earlier. As regarded the Motion before the House, he had to assure it, on behalf of the Government, that what had been said that night would receive their full consideration, and without pledging the Secretary of State for War in any way to a departure from his present arrangements, he was authorized to state that his right hon. Friend had every desire to meet the wishes of all persons concerned as far as possible.


said, he thought the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War had been very unhappy in his selection of the 31st of August for the commencement of the Autumn Manœuvres, and, though no very large damage might be done, still the "indirect claims" growing out of the abstraction of labour from farming operations at this period of the year must not be overlooked. If further time had been allowed, as in last year, no one would have had a right to complain; but the hon. and right hon. Gentlemen on the Ministerial side of the House seemed to think that the interest of agriculture was hardly worth considering. The case of the Staffordshire Militia was not in point, because they were composed of miners, who could be spared from their work, and not of farm labourers. He trusted that the hon. Member who brought forward the present Motion (Mr. Dimsdale) would divide the House on it, and let the country see that there was not on the benches opposite a practical Government, nor one which had any consideration for the great interest which supplied the food of the nation. No doubt it was important to have a well-organized Army; but it was also important, in settling the time when the men should assemble for the manœuvres, to fix a period when they could meet together with the least inconvenience. The present Government, however, if they could find one time more inconvenient than another, would select that period.


considered it important that the Militia regiments to be called out for the Autumn Manœuvres should not have their previous training curtailed; but if they got a fair drill first, then he thought they would be in a condition to receive much improvement from the manœuvres afterwards.


said, that the Militia regiment with which he was connected had been summoned to the Autumn Manœuvres, and he did not find that there was any objection to attend. On the contrary, the proposal to take part in them was very popular; but that was not the whole of the question. At the present moment the price of labour was increasing, and the farmers were becoming alarmed lest their labourers should be taken away at a period when they were most wanted. However, the House had received from the Government an assurance that the appointment of the exact day when the manœuvres should be commenced would be reconsidered, and he would venture to suggest to the hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Dimsdale) not to divide the House, but to accept that assurance. He trusted that the same course would continue to be pursued with respect to Militia training which had been followed up to the present time, and that the men and officers would be consulted as to what would be the most convenient time for being called out. In his county (Lancashire) the same period did not suit all regiments, and the Secretary of State for War had, in compliance with the suggestions of the commanding officers, allowed some difference of time in the calling out of the various corps.


said, he had been entirely misunderstood by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmund's (Mr. Greene). The authorities had consulted the convenience of all parties, as far as they were aware. He had endeavoured to ascertain the wishes of agriculturists, and, as far as the information he had received went, there appeared to be general concurrence of opinion as to the convenience of the time selected. The authorities had no other object but to choose the most convenient period, and they were ready to reconsider the matter with the view of ascertaining what would really be the most convenient time, and he would state the result when he brought forward the subject again.


inferred from the debate that there was no practical objection to his Motion, which stated that the manœuvres ought not to take place at harvest time, and he should, therefore, press it to a division.


must say that after the remarks which had fallen from the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War it would be hardly necessary to press the House to divide on the Motion of his hon. Friend; for the House knew what those remarks meant—namely, the right hon. Gentleman felt that much had been urged by hon. Members which was worthy of attention, and when he brought forward his Bill on the subject the House would see the results of the conversation to-night. For his own part, he should regret not to vote for the Motion of his hon. Friend, because it was one founded on sound principles; but since the declaration made on the part of the Government, he thought it would be a want of courtesy on the part of hon. Gentlemen on that side of the House to press for a division.


then consented, in consequence of the appeal just made to him, to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.